Verbs with Pronouns

Romance languages contain pronouns that revolve around the verb, so much so that their pronouns tend to act as clitics pronounced along with the verb as a single word. This section explores the basic order of these Romance pronouns around the verb.

Subject Pronouns

Romance verbs have endings that carry information about the person and number of the subject: Western Romance *fabulamus, Portuguese falamos we speak has an ending -amus for the first person plural we. In Classical Latin, Vulgar Latin and most of the modern languages, the corresponding subject pronoun is routinely dropped: Vulgar Latin *parabolant, Catalan parlen and Italian parlano suffice for they speak. Speakers include the subject for clarity or emphasis: Vulgar Latin *tu cantas, Spanish tú cantas for YOU sing. So, the Romance languages have been described as languages with “optional” subjects or as pro-drop languages.

Subject pronoun dropping does not apply to the entire Romance world. Some languages developed into “keepers” instead of “droppers”, particularly in France, Switzerland and the Italian Alps: French je chante and Romansh jau chant mean I sing, but not simply *chante or *chant. These languages even expect expletives where pro-drop languages have no subject whatsoever (like with weather verbs): French il pleut it rains but not *pleut versus Italian piove [it] rains and not *lui piove.

Some subject-keeping languages have weak, unstressed subject pronouns that act as clitics: Emiliano-Romagnolo a pèrle, colloquial French j’parle for I speak. Rhaeto-Romance can but prefers not to attach subject clitics to the end of a verb: Romansh chanta in place of jau chant for I sing. In some of these languages, the subject may be reinforced with non-clitic pronouns: Emiliano-Romagnolo ei a pèrle or mé a pèrle, colloquial French moi j’parle me, I speak / I (emphatic) speak.

The following table demonstrates how the various Romance languages drop or reinforce the subject pronoun.

language dropped subject retained subject reinforced subject
Catalan canto jo canto
French je chante moi, je chante
Romagnolo a cante ei a cante
Romansh (chanta) jau chant jau chanta
Sardinian canto deo canto
Romanian cânt eu cânt

Direct or Indirect Object Pronouns

The Romance languages have a set of direct object pronouns that sit to the left of the verb: Vulgar Latin *illu vidio, Sardinian lu vido, Italian lo vedo, Spanish lo veo [I] see him.

The Romance languages also have a set of indirect object pronouns that sit to the left of the verb: Vulgar Latin *illi do, Sardinian li do, Italian gli dò, Spanish le doy [I] give to him/her. Outside of the third person, most Romance object pronouns no longer distinguish between direct and indirect objects.

  Latin Portuguese Spanish French Sardinian Italian translation
direct object *te vidio te vejo te veo je te vois ti vido ti vedo I see you
indirect object *ti promitto te prometo te prometo je te promets ti prominto ti prometto I promise to you
direct object *illa vidio a vejo la veo je la vois la vido la vedo I see her
indirect object *illi promitto lhe prometo le prometo je lui promets li prominto gli prometto I promise to her

Only Romanian retains clearly distinct sets of indirect versus direct object pronouns: îmi zice he says to me versus mă vede he sees me, while Italian has mi dice and mi vede, failing to distinguish between accusative me and dative to me. For the examples above, Romanian has te văd I see you versus îți promit I promise to you.

Some languages can reinforce these object pronouns with strong object pronouns: Spanish a ti te veo I see YOU, Romanian ție îți promit I promise TO YOU, but not Italian *te ti vedo for I see you.

Both Direct and Indirect Object Pronouns

Many verb phrases contain both an indirect and direct object, like English gives it to me. In these situations, the Romance languages expect the sequence of indirect object + direct object before the verb: Spanish te lo prometo, French je te le promets I promise it to you.

In some languages, the shape of the indirect object pronoun changes before a direct object: Italian te lo prometto instead of the expected *ti lo prometto for I promise it to you. Other languages contract both pronouns when vowels make up the word boundary: Portuguese to prometo rather than *te o prometto, Romanian ți-l promit instead of *îți îl promit, Italian glielo prometto I promise it to-her/him and not *gli lo prometto.

With verbs in the imperative mood, object pronouns fall to the right of the verb instead of the left: French dis-le-moi, Romanian spune-mi-l say it to me. Some languages attach the pronouns directly to the verb: Spanish dímelo, Italian dimmelo say it to me.

These word orders apply to reflexive object pronouns, too: Spanish se lo prometió, Portuguese so prometeu she promised it to herself, and Italian lavatevi, French lavez-vous wash yourselves.

Galician and European Portuguese routinely place object pronouns after the verb: Portuguese disseste-me you told me, chamo-me I call myself (for my name is). Verbs with object pronouns that follow other material maintain the word order found in the rest of Romance: Portuguese não me disseste you did not tell me (introduced by a negative particle), se me dissesses if you told me (the beginning of a hypothetical).

Some languages make small adjustments with third-person pronouns. In French, the default order is reversed when both direct and indirect object are third person pronouns: je le lui promets rather than *je lui le promets for I promise it to-him/her. Italian makes the same change in word order, but only with the third person reflexive object: lo si promette she promises it to herself instead of *se lo promette, which is expected on analogy with te lo prometto. Spanish speakers replace the third-person indirect object le (singular) or les (plural) with se before a third-person direct object: se lo prometo and not *les lo prometo for I promise it to them.

Locatives and Partitives

French, Italian, Catalan and a number of other Romance languages have small words that also act as clitic pronouns: Vulgar Latin *ic there and en/ne some: French tu y vas, Catalan hi vas, Italian ci vai you go there, and French tu en veux, Catalan en vols, Italian ne vuoi you want some, Italian (tu) ne vuoi uno you want one of them. The two pronouns have come to complement each other, the first meaning to it/there and the second from it/there: Italian ne torno I return from-there versus ci torno I return to-there.

In languages that have them, these locatives and partitives are placed alongside direct and indirect object pronouns. The examples below compare the placement of object pronouns in various Romance languages, including Spanish, which lacks partitive and locative pronouns.

Spanish French Italian translation
verb doy je donne do I give
verb + direct object lo doy je le donne lo do I give it
verb + direct + indirect object te lo doy je te le donne te lo do I give it to you
verb + partitive + indirect object te doy uno je t’en donne un te ne do uno I give you one of them

Impersonal Verbs

Sometimes the apparent subject is less directly involved, and so acts as an experiencer rather than an agent. In these situations, Romance grammar treats the experiencer as an indirect object and uses an impersonal verb that only appears in the third person: Spanish me gusta I like [it] (literally [it] is-pleasing to-me), Romanian îmi trebuie I have to (literally [it] is-obligatory to-me).

Mayan ruins in Palenque, Mexico

Mayan ruins of Palenque in Mexico. Spanish me gusta la arquitectura maya (“Mayan architecture pleases me”) uses a third-person verb form with an indirect object pronoun. English often uses a first-person subject instead (“I like Mayan architecture”).

If the thing experienced is made explicit, it will act as the grammatical subject and the verb will agree with its number: Spanish me gustan I like them. These grammatical subjects tend to follow the impersonal verb, demonstrating that the focus still rests on the experiencer: Spanish le encantó la idea I loved the idea but me encantaron las ideas I loved the ideas. The grammatical features of the object do not trigger changes in the verb: Spanish les encantó la idea but never *les encantaron la idea for they loved the idea. Impersonal verbs may also be followed by an infinitive (or the Romanian subjunctive): Italian mi piace lavorare I like to work (literally [it] pleases to-me to work), Romanian îmi place să lucrez I like to work (literally [it] pleases to-me that I work).

Impersonal verbs are a very common way for Romance speakers to express experiences, including enjoyment and obligation.

language impersonal verb structure translation
Italian piace mi piace fare I like to do
Occitan cal me cal far I have to do
Spanish gusta me gusta hacer I like to do
French il faut il me faut faire I have to do
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